“True. Would you like me to call the number?”
“Let me. It’s my town. I should be the first one through closed doors.”
“That’s French for stupid, isn’t it? That’s okay. If we have time, I’ll give you a demonstration of naked jousting.”
We leave through the Room and back to her car. She doesn’t ask any questions this time.
BACK IN FRONT of Max Overload, Brigitte leans over to kiss me, and this time I’m not shy about kissing her back. Cabal’s act sucked the paranoid jitters right out of me. Sometimes annoyance will keep you going when booze and fear and hope are as dead as the Big Bopper.
Brigitte says, “I could come up for a while if you like.”
“I would like, but you wouldn’t like. I have a roommate.”
“Does he like to watch?”
“He’d love it. But he’s a kind of a spy and that means Lucifer would be watching us, too.”
“What do I care? Lucifer probably has my calendar in his office in Hell.”
“It would be awkward for me.”
How do you tell someone you want to fuck that you can’t do it in front of the devil because you don’t want your dad spying on you?
“All right. I should probably be getting back anyway. But you owe me.”
“Before I forget, my roommate loves you more than beer and cigarettes. Would you sign these for him?”
I hand her the DVDs. She smiles and takes a pen from the glove compartment.
“Who do I make it out to?”
“What a lovely old name.”
“I’ll tell him you said that. It’ll make his week.”
“There’s something for you under the seat.”
I reach down and feel along the carpet until I touch a box. I pull it out and open it. Inside is a collapsed metal weapon.
“The gift that keeps on giving.”
Brigitte hands me the DVDs.
“I want to go back to Springheel’s house and look around soon. Want to come with me?”
“Is there a bedroom?”
“I didn’t see one, but you can help me look.”
“Then count me in.”
She blows me a kiss, pops the clutch, and burns rubber back onto Hollywood Boulevard.
KASABIAN IS GOING through online video catalogs when I get back. Death Rides a Horse is playing on the other monitor.
“Did you remember cigarettes?”
“We didn’t get to a store. I bummed one off one of the kids working the register.”
“I have no idea. They all look alike to me.”
I set the DVDs on his table.
“Don’t say I never gave you nothing.”
He grabs them in his little metal legs.
“You are my goddamn hero, man.”
“One more thing off my bucket list.”
The DVDs have him in a good mood and I don’t want to spoil it yet. I’ll wait to tell him that Wells fired me and either I start knocking over gas stations or we set up shop in the Dumpster next to the hand.
“How was your date?”
“It wasn’t exactly a date. We talked to a guy who yammered like he was gangbanged by a thesaurus. It’s all a big act, but he’s had a lot of practice. I don’t think I ever met a human before who could stretch ‘pass the peas’ into a hundred and fifty syllables. I once killed a Hellion who talked like that just to shut him up.”
“When Brigitte dumps you, you might not want to include ‘kills people who use big words’ in your personal ad.”
“What makes you think Brigitte’s going to dump me?”
He cocks his head in my direction.
“Gee, I don’t know. She dates billionaires and you live in an attic over a video store. She wants to get into big-time movies and you can get her free beer and tacos. You’re a monster and she’s a person. I can e-mail you a spreadsheet if you want to see the other five hundred reasons.”
“She won’t dump me.”
“She hasn’t told me her real name and I haven’t told her what the Room is.”
He takes a beer from the fridge under his table and cracks it open.
“So, you’re finally done mooning over Alice. About time.”
Kasabian’s beer flies across the room and hits the wall before I realize it was me who knocked it out of his hand.
“Do not ever fucking say her name. Not now, not ever, unless you want to go back in the closet. And while you’re playing spy, tell Lucifer not to pull that shit with me either. People are after him and all I have to do is step out for a sandwich and let it happen.”
Kasabian is staring at me, shit scared. A deer head in the headlights. He’s quiet for what seems like a full minute.
He says, “I’m sorry, man. I overstepped.”
I take the cigarette from where I’d stuck it behind my ear and light it. Take a couple of puffs. Kasabian is still staring at me. I go over and hold the filter end of the smoke out to him. He doesn’t move for a second and then takes a tentative puff.
We finish it in silence.
I take beers from the fridge, give him one, and take the other to the bed.
Where did that slap come from? I haven’t heard Alice’s name out loud since I sent Mason Downtown. I’m trying not to think about her every time I close my eyes or make a decision. Not thinking about her is the same as getting over her, right?
“Tell me something. When you were doing Zombie 101 earlier, why didn’t you tell me about Savants?” I ask.
“What’s a Savant?”
I look at him. He’s not lying.
“Just something I heard. It might be a wild-goose chase, but it might not. When you’re in the Codex, keep your eyes open for Savant or Saperes.”
“Sure. In the meantime, I think I know something that’s going to make you feel better.”
“Whatever you said to Lucifer at the studio shot a bottle rocket up his ass. He’s been sending me into the Codex all day. Looking at sections I didn’t know were there. Digging through footnotes and diaries and commentaries. Some of the writing is old. Like beginning-of-time old. Some of it’s written in an angelic script I bet even Mason never saw. I think it might be the first one. The original script. The first writing for the first language in the universe.”
“Hallelujah. I’ll buy the cherubs a lap dance when this is done. But right now, I’m up to my ass in little fortune-cookie facts and I don’t know how any of them go together.”
“Here’s something. The big man had me do a brain dump on you and he saw the drawing you did of the belt-buckle thing. Know what happened?”
“He ordered one from QVC?”
“He freaked the fuck out. It was so strong I felt it. I mean, we’re supposed to have a one-way communication system. I send and he receives. But when he saw that drawing, the blowback out of his brain went all the way up the line and back into me.”
“So, what is it?”
“I don’t know yet. The writing around the edges is more of that old angelic script. I can’t read it yet, but I’ll figure it out.”
“Whatever it is, this means that Lucifer knows that I know about the belt buckle.”
“Yeah, but I can block things from him. All he knows is that you saw the image. He doesn’t know you really saw the thing or know where it is. If I were you, I’d move my ass and get it. Whatever it is, the buckle is strange enough to scare Lucifer and it’s definitely connected to the zeds.”
“Let me finish my beer.”
“Of course. The end of the world can wait.”
NO, I GUESS it can’t. I go through a shadow and into the boarded-up movie theater with the bottle in my hand, finishing the last dregs of the beer. The place is dead black when I get inside. The owners must have done a better job sealing the place up after the cops came by. I just hope they didn’t clean it. I throw the bottle at the wall and wait for the crash. But there isn’t one. Just a dull thud as it hits something soft. I get out Mason’s lighter and spark it.
The beer suddenly tries to come back up my throat. It’s not like wanting to puke. It’s more like the beer is smarter than me and it wants to run away and leave my dumb ass where it’s standing.
The bottle didn’t smash because it didn’t hit the wall. It didn’t hit the wall because it hit a zed. Or a Lacuna. I can’t really tell the difference, but this would be a good place to learn about them because there are about a hundred Drifters mobbed together maybe twenty feet away.
I lurch halfway back into the shadow when I realize that I don’t have to. None of the shamblers are looking in my direction. Not even the one I hit with the bottle. They’re just standing in a big circle among the seats. A few moan quietly, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me. They’re all looking down at the same spot on the floor. I think I know what they’re looking at.
The gun and the na’at aren’t going to do me much good in these close quarters and I don’t want to use any hoodoo on the off chance it’ll break the buckle’s hypnotic hold on these meat sticks. What I really need is about a hundred pounds of C4, but I must have left it in my other coat. I get out the black blade. It’ll be hard to use, but better than nothing. If the belt buckle is at the center of the mob, I’ll have to put away the knife to get it. But until I’m sure, I’m staying ready to slice and dice.
I take a couple of steps closer to the mob. It’s a mixed bunch. Some of the dead are very recent. They look like regular civilians who’ve missed a night or two of sleep. Others aren’t much more than gristle and bones in decaying rags. A lot of the older ones are eyeless, so whatever brought them here must be pretty powerful hoodoo.
I’m right behind them now. I could touch the one in front of me without stretching my arm. He’s wearing shorts and sandals and an orange “I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am” T-shirt.
I put the knife to the back of his neck. If he so much as twitches, I can take his head off and slice up the nearest ones enough so the others will trip on them when they come for me. But I don’t have to do anything.
Slowly and steadily I shoulder my way between the stinking dead, inching toward the center of the room. I keep the knife up, but none of them have the slightest interest in me. They’re all hypnotized by what’s on the floor.
It feels like it takes a week to get to where they’re all looking. And there it is, lying on an altar of broken glass and crushed Mickey’s malt-liquor cans. Eleanor’s belt buckle.
I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Eleanor. I should have known that the stunt in public with the flamethrower and the mad dash home to the theater weren’t accidental. You wanted to get caught. You wanted someone to find you and whatever it was you’d stolen and kill you for it so Mommy and the rest of the Sub Rosa would know what you’d done and what happened to you. That’s a lot of pain for a kid to be hauling around. It makes me not mind you frying my arm so much. I know what it’s like to want to cook the world. I’m sorry I didn’t figure it out sooner, but, for what it’s worth, I’m here now, and if I don’t end up a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the next few minutes, I’ll take your buckle and do something with it. If I do end up eaten, well, I’ll buy you a Happy Meal in Hell.
At the center of the crowd, the Drifters are so packed together I have to knock a zed on his face to squeeze through. I freeze, waiting for the crowd to lunge. But the zed on the floor just stands up and goes back to staring. I know they can smell me. I’m sweating like a three-legged racehorse, but even now when I’m about to pick up their holy grail, they ignore me.
I’m in too deep to back off now. I put the knife back in my jacket and hold the lighter close to the floor so I get the buckle without wasting time. Crouching, I touch the edge, ready to back off at the slightest reaction from the Drifters. Nothing. I get my hand around the buckle and slowly lift it a few inches, then a foot off the ground. Still no reaction. Either I was wrong about the buckle or Drifter brains are so slow to process information it’ll take them a while to notice that the family jewels are gone. I hope it’s the second one.
I slip the buckle into my coat pocket, but keep one hand under my coat. Slowly, I push my way through the Drifters back the way I came. They stay put, though the moaners are getting louder.
Without warning, they all step forward at once. They sense that the talisman is gone and want to get closer to where it was and soak up the residual hoodoo. There’s a hundred or more of them trying to squeeze into a space about the size of a phone booth. I lean forward and put my shoulder into them. I have to use all my weight to move forward. I’m getting through, but the farther back I go, the more they press forward.
The mood is changing. The place was a church when I got here. Cool and contemplative. Getting the buckle wasn’t much worse that pushing to the front of the stage at a hardcore club. Now the air is getting bad. Jittery with panic and confusion. I’ve been here before. I know what’s coming. Time to de-ass the premises.
Fuck close quarters. I pull the .460 from its holster and pop a shoulder-level shot between two zeds I want to move. The blast knocks one off its feet and rips the other’s arm loose, so it’s hanging by a few strands of tendon. With just the loose limb in my way, I push past them without slowing down. I need out of here ASAP and get into a rhythm about it. Take a step. Blow open a porthole. Take a step. Fire. Step. Fire. It’s working. I’m moving faster now. My only worry is slipping on corpse leakage or a severed arm.